Domestic rats are intelligent animals that need interesting living spaces, social interaction and lots of stimulation in order to thrive. Here’s how to ensure your rats lead happy, healthy lives.
In the wild, rats spend most of their time roaming, foraging for food and building nests, all of which demands a lot of mental and physical energy. Unlike domestic rats, they don’t have the luxury of bowls filled to the brim with food, water bottles, and comfy hammocks and igloos to snuggle up in. However, while pet rats are quite different from their wild counterparts, they still have some of the same needs, such as running, climbing, gnawing, digging and nesting.
Rats need lots of space to run around, and therefore require a fairly large cage. Mice cages are not suitable, as they’re far too small. A large wire cage with different levels is ideal. Rats usually prefer tall vertical cages that offer them plenty of opportunity to climb. Small animal cages are available in a range of sizes and one for two rats makes a good size, also cages can sometimes be joined together to accommodate more rats. Modified bird aviaries and cabinet cages made out of an old bookcase, a chest of drawers, or from a kitset also work really well.
Good ventilation is essential as rat urine produces ammonia vapours that can harm a rat’s respiratory system. For this reason, wire cages are a better choice than glass aquariums. The cage, including all its contents, should be cleaned at least once a week When lining the cage, Aspen shavings and Back-2-Nature small animal bedding are good choices, as are paper cat litters. Shredded paper, soy ink-based newspaper and old towels and rags are also good bedding for rats. Pine and cedar wood chip beddings should not be used as they damage the respiratory tract, causing chronic respiratory disease.
Choose a room that has a significant amount of foot traffic. Rats love to interact with people and enjoy being where they get to see people on a regular basis. Make sure the cage is in a room with a consistently moderate temperature, and way from drafts. It’s also important to keep the cage out of direct sunlight, as rats can overheat quickly. Rats can become quite stressed if harassed by cats and dogs, so ensure the cage is out of reach of other pets..
A large cage is great, but with no stimulation for their active imaginations, rats can get bored quickly. The cage needs to be both a safe and enriching living space.
A place to nest is important for your rat. It gives them somewhere to hide and stash food, and provides a sense of security while sleeping. Small animal igloos found in pet shops are perfect for this. Less expensive alternatives include upturned lunch boxes and ice-cream containers with entrance holes added. Tunnels can be made out of PVC pipes found at most hardware stores. Tissue boxes or cardboard boxes are also ideal places to hang out, but will need to be replaced every few days. Fleece hammocks and cubes are an all-time favourite with my rats. Hammocks are available at some pet stores, as well as online; they can also be made cheaply from towels, or even old shirts.
Don’t forget to check the bird, dog and cat aisles at your pet shop when looking for toys and accessories. The bird section has stiff rope perches that rats enjoy walking along, as well as hanging bird toys that are ideal for climbing and chewing. A cat feather toy used under supervision is another winner with rats, and playing with toys is also a great form of exercise for your rat.
Fun with food
Rats love to chew! Their teeth are continually growing, and while rats with properly aligned teeth wear them down naturally by grinding them together, they still love to chew for entertainment and relaxation. In the absence of something to gnaw on, you might find your rats will chew things they shouldn’t - like your favourite shirt! Cheap and effective chew toys include Greenies, wood chews, and branches from non-toxic trees such as apple. Chicken bones are another popular choice with rats, and because they gnaw the bones, there’s no chance of splintering or choking. Hard-shelled nuts also provide plenty of entertainment for rats, but should be used sparingly because of their fat content.
Feeding them treats in inventive ways will keep your rats occupied. Treat balls made for cats or rats that dispense food as they’re rolled across the floor can give your rat hours of fun and exercise. Yoghurt drops, banana chips and pumpkin seeds are popular treats.
A piñata is another cheap and easy toy that can be made by wrapping a few strong-smelling treats in some paper towels, and binding it with string. Hang as many as you like throughout the cage. Alternatively you could take a toilet roll tube, add some treats, fold in the ends to close it, tie some string around it, then hang it from the top of the rat cage.
Outside the cage
Even with the most interesting home, rats still need at least an hour outside of their cage every day - ideally interacting with you. If you have a rat-proof room, you can set up a play area for them. Include cardboard boxes with holes cut in them, blankets for the rats to tunnel under, and a cat scratching post for climbing.
Pea-fishing is perfect for hot summer days. Take a fairly flat dish, pour in some lukewarm water, add some frozen peas and place the tray on a flat surface (put a towel underneath in case of spillage). Your rats will love diving for the tasty treats!
There's nothing more amusing to a rat than you. They love to explore and climb all over you. Whether it's shirt diving, shoulder surfing, or just hanging out, rats find us humans endlessly entertaining.
With a little thought and effort, you can provide your rats with an environment that’s rewarding for both you both - they will thank you for it!
Pet.co.nz has a fun and colourful range of small animal products to keep your rat happy and healthy.